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Rodeo queen, Broadway baby, single-name superstar — the Country Music Hall of Fame celebrates all the women Reba McEntire is

Urban Cowgirl

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Reba McEntire has always relished playing Fancy, the dirt-poor, rural kid-turned-prostitute-made-good whom roots-pop songwriter Bobbie Gentry dreamed up in the late '60s. McEntire was barely into her teens when she started covering Gentry's story-song in Oklahoma beer joints. Two decades later, she fought for its inclusion on her 1990 album Rumor Has It and further fleshed out the character in a Southern Gothic soap-opera music video, acting the part of Fancy Rae Baker, a woman who'd worked her way from a backwoods shack to showbiz stardom using her wits, her will and what her mama gave her.

Boy, did McEntire make a show-stopping scene of the song in her concerts back then, setting up the climactic moment, several verses in, when she'd toss aside Fancy Rae's pillbox hat, unpin her fiery mane — somehow managing not to disturb a headset microphone — and shed her movie-star furs to reveal a dramatic red gown, bringing the performance home with a robust, flashy delivery that landed somewhere between gospel and Broadway. Even though the fur-coat move long ago went the way of McEntire's jacked-to-heaven hairdos, that signature number will forever have a place in her set list.

McEntire hasn't worked as a female escort a day in her life, but there's clearly something she connects with in this tale of a self-made woman entertainer. What better place to ask her what that something is than a conference room on the third floor of Starstruck Entertainment, aka the House That Reba Built?

"I love that rags-to-riches story," she answers, her blue eyes blazing beneath green eye shadow.

The superstar singer-actor has lived her own ranch-to-riches story for the ages. It's told — with her cache of colorful mementos — in a fascinating new Reba exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, open now through next June.

"They were tellin' me that they had gotten more stuff from me than any other artist," she says, in her brisk, bright Southwestern drawl. "From first grade to now, they said they've never gotten that [range of artifacts] before."

The name of the exhibit is All the Women I Am. You can take it as a nod to the McEntire album of that title, which, notably, yielded a No. 1 hit the very same year she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. It works equally well as a reference to the be-all and do-all nature of her life as multi-format entertainer, businesswoman, wife and mother; or to the variety of strong female roles she's inhabited as song interpreter, big-screen character actor, and sitcom and Broadway lead; or to the notion that she reached her rarified pop culture perch without shedding her down-home identity.

If the prospect of getting acquainted with all the women McEntire is sounds like a close encounter with schizophrenia, fear not. After some recent time in her company, the Scene's suspicions were confirmed: She's as fully integrated and expansive a personality as country music has ever claimed — not to mention a frank, hearty and lightning-quick interview subject.

The genre's audience asks a lot of its performers, not least that they publicly work out the tension between staying true to where they came from and striving for upward mobility. Flatt & Scruggs, and later Ricky Skaggs, stressed roots faithfulness in "Don't Get Above Your Raisin'," while Trisha Yearwood cheered a modern woman's pursuit of economic independence in "XXX's and OOO's (An American Girl)" — and a country star worth her salt needs to find ways to relate to both. That's one of the bigger challenges facing any performer who hopes to stick around, and McEntire has damn well aced it — just like she did the 10th grade, according to the report card now on display in the museum.

Weeks before the artifacts were arranged in the Hall of Fame's East Gallery — which last held Patsy Cline's personal effects — curatorial director Mick Buck and curator Kayla Wiechmann stood in the Frist Library and Archive showing off the spoils of McEntire's recent campaign to declutter her garage, home and office. Thumbing through garments on a clothes rack, they alighted on a sparkly blue cropped vest, fit for a small-town majorette.

"We have what Reba says is her first real stage costume," says Buck, "which was this shirt and vest that the wife of her school-bus driver made for her. How down-home is that?"

From a second rack, they produced a lacy peasant blouse and brown quilted skirt, the unassuming ensemble McEntire wore when she accepted her first CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Award in 1984. It's followed by a series of increasingly glitzy outfits, the most spectacularly bejeweled, befringed and beglammed among them — including several gowns McEntire has donned to sing "Fancy" — the work of her longtime designer, Sandi Spika.

A neighboring table was strewn with a half-century's worth of McEntire mile-markers: ribbons from grade school track meets, basketball camps and 4-H events; that A-average report card; kiddie-sized cowboy boots that took a beating barrel racing; spurs won in a rodeo; a $25 check stub from gigging with her brother Pake and sister Susie as the Singing McEntires; a pass from the 1974 National Finals Rodeo, where she delivered the national anthem and was discovered by cowboy singer Red Steagall; more familiar sights, like CMA, ACM, Grammy and People's Choice Award trophies.

McEntire's golden gramophone statuettes are the sort of treasures only the most cash-strapped recipient would part with. But the fact that she also accumulated and held onto so many humbler tokens — and did so decades before scrapbooking supply shops started popping up in strip malls — suggests she was driven and grounded from the get-go.

Then there's the matter of her marketability. Alongside velvety studded booties from her Dillard's line and an unopened bag of Fritos with her smiling mug on it — her shock of red hair a perfect complement to the chips' logo — lies proof that the seeds of her business savvy were planted way back: the hand-written application that won her the title "Miss Atoka County Ford" when she was all of 16, and with it the use of a brand, spanking new Ford Torino for six months.

"It was my first sponsorship!" she jokes later. "I drove it all the way to Cheyenne for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, and took it to Colorado on a vacation."

Family vacation time wasn't the defining characteristic of McEntire's Oklahoma childhood so much as long, hard days on her parents' cattle ranch — a set of memories that doesn't as readily lend itself to museum display, but receives lengthy treatment in her autobiography, Reba: My Story. By 7 years old, she recounts in Chapter 2, she was up and at it before dawn with her three siblings, shouldering adult-size responsibilities. McEntire scoffs good-naturedly at her interviewer's naive notion that it would be kinda, sorta understandable if kids were to, um, run screaming at the prospect of helping their dad castrate a bull.

"We would either hold the tail or hold the bucket," she says. "You'd have to hold the tail to get it out of the way while [daddy's] doing the job. And then you're holding the bucket to take the testicles and put 'em in there."

The bottom line was this: "Whenever anybody called you to come help, come work, you did it. You didn't ask questions and you didn't beg off."

Cowboys have long been among country music's most romantic figures, from Hollywood fixtures and happy-trails wishers Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to the Urban Cowboy image and the hordes of city-dwellers it inspired to live the mechanical bull-furnished fantasy by night. That McEntire's cowgirl bona fides are as authentic as they come has made a world of difference, both to her sense of herself as the no-job-too-daunting type and to her fans' recognition that she puts real work-up-a-sweat effort into entertaining them.

"I think it's really important for people to realize my background was a lot of hard work, and a lot of fun," McEntire says. "But the hard work, I brought it right along with me in everything I've done."

Since almost everything McEntire's done for the past quarter-century has paid sizable popularity dividends, it's easy to forget that her mid-'70s signing by Mercury was a total toss-up between another female hopeful and her — one "girl singer" was plenty, the thinking went. And that she and her first husband, rodeo champ Charlie Battles, were still living in a $10-a-month Okie shack, without running water, when she first cracked the Top 10.

In reality, she faced a seven-year slog between the start of her recording career and her first No. 1 single. Things finally began to click when she assumed a much more active role in determining the direction of her recordings, beginning with her insistence upon ditching uptown orchestral accompaniment in favor of fiddle and steel guitar.

"I went to Jimmy Bowen, [then] head of [MCA, her second label], went to his house, and I said, 'I'm just really not happy with this,' " she says. "And he said, 'What do you want?' I said, 'Well, I want my kind of country.' "

That became the title of her breakthrough 1984 album, a spunkily traditional set well-stocked with Western swing frolics, sawdust-floor honky-tonk shuffles and sumptuous singing, plus a few plush period flourishes. It put her on the frontline of an '80s neo-traditional movement that's since become a magnet for nostalgia.

"When that wave first hit, she was right there part of it," says museum writer-editor Michael McCall, who penned the introduction to the exhibit's companion book. "It was Ricky Skaggs, George Strait and Reba, and John Anderson to some degree. Then a couple years later, you had Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. ... And we have a letter in the book from George Jones, thanking her for bringing country music back to tradition when she won a CMA Award."

Not only was McEntire fighting for a foothold in what was very much a boys' club at the time, she dared nurture grander aspirations than most of her peers of either gender.

"Success builds confidence," she offers. "And when one thing would go right, I would go, 'Mmm, I had that feeling that that would go right.' So when the songs started becoming successful, that gave me confidence."

Once the gruff, burly Battles decided his wife had advanced far enough in her career, he lived up to his last name, proving more of a stumbling block than a source of support. After that, McEntire married Narvel Blackstock, who dreamed big right along with her — enough so that she'd already promoted him from steel guitarist to road manager, and from road manager to all-around manager. The couple brought her booking, promotion and publishing in-house, setting up shop in a converted carpet warehouse near the fairgrounds, and later moving into Starstruck's formidable Music Row digs, built by what was, at the time, their very own construction company.

Besides establishing her independence in the biz, McEntire was quite consciously spiffing up her self-presentation. The first of many choreography lessons — this one courtesy of the guy who mapped out Tina Turner's leggy moves — was how to make eye contact with the audience. On top of that, McEntire became one of Nashville's earliest adopters of that hot, new, supposedly radio star-killing visual medium, the music video. She even bugged Dolly Parton — one of her formative influences in style, sound and substance alike — for tips on who to call for spangly stage couture.

"I thought the costumes were very important too," says McEntire, "because you can see the sparkle from way back in the back or up in the crow's nest."

Eventually, she inaugurated her most flashily, fabulously attired era by hiring Spika — now Sandi Spika Borchetta, and a senior VP at Big Machine — to be her traveling designer, stylist and hairdresser.

"Every time I got into a Sandi Spika outfit, I felt pretty," she reflects. "And when you feel pretty and you go out onstage, you can give even more."

To McEntire, giving more meant thoroughly spending herself in the act of singing and letting the audience feel her physical and emotional exertion — her brilliantly flaring timbre when she leapt into her head voice, her bending of note and lyric into lavish whorls and ringlets. "It's hard work to do the trills and the little curlicues and things," she admits.

Not only had she not shed her regional twang, she was accentuating it, flaunting it, celebrating it. The ampleness of her vocals was just the thing for arena crowds, and she had the massive live setup to match. By way of 22 tractor trailers, 15 costume changes, 10 backing dancers, three stages, and at one point, even a Reba impersonator in drag, she brought her warm-hearted, high-camp blockbuster country show to the people.

By the time McEntire and now legendary record man Tony Brown co-produced Rumor Has It and 1991's For My Broken Heart — the latter an emotionally laden commercial juggernaut following a plane crash that killed many members of her band and crew — she'd gone all in on country-pop power balladry of the highest order, complete with grand crescendos and misty harmonies.

It's worth recalling that those sounds were not music to every critic's ears. "Remember Reba McEntire?" wrote one in a 1990 Country Music magazine feature. "The Reba who, for a while there, was one of the heroes of the country neo-traditionalist movement and a spokesperson for it? These days, one can't help wondering where that Reba has gone."

"The show is glitzy, hip, hi-tech and flashily new age," he went on. "And — like Reba's new record — it's conspicuously free of fiddles and steel. ... It's as if, sad to say, Reba has gone corporate with her music."

Funny. Her fans heard and interpreted those same qualities very differently. Sandra Bonomo — who became a Reba fan in the '80s and even met her husband backstage at a show — writes in an email, "I must confess that my favorite Reba era was in the '90s, the age of big hair and big concert productions. She owned that stage, that venue, that audience on every tour stop. She was the first country artist to take cues from pop-rock peers and add in her own special elements to create a concert extravaganza."

Vincent Buzzeo, onetime president of the New York state chapter of McEntire's fan club, says in another email, "I loved Reba standing at the mic singing, and I felt the thrill of the elaborate production shows. Intimate theaters of a few hundred to gigantic arenas, I can't say that I enjoy one better than another. ... She excels at it all."

Having dissected the elite-to-popular spectrum of artistic taste in the process of writing his influential entry in the 33 1/3 book series, Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson can be of assistance here.

"Nashville has always seemed suspect," he writes in an email to the Scene, "as it's always aimed at something more spectacular, more showbizzy and of course radio-friendly. It's not untrue that Nashville's goal is to make the music bigger and shinier, but a lot of critics misunderstand that change of form as a change of content. We assume that a shift in sound means a loss of soul.

"The audience, however, has invested its faith in Reba as a person (a person they've in many ways imagined or had sold to them, sure, but a person) rather than to some musical set of values she's supposed to represent, so they're more willing to let her change as long as she doesn't fundamentally break with that faith."

And what did McEntire herself make of such disparities of opinion between ink-stained skeptics and her devoted fan base?

"Honestly, I don't remember," she says. "All I know is that we kept our noses to the grindstone, workin' so hard and tryin' to do bigger, better things, find better songs, songs that touched my heart. But we were going so fast, I don't remember gettin' much feedback from anybody. I just knew that it was workin' and the fans seemed to be very responsive. I would take U.S. Mail crates with me when I'd fly to shows [and respond to fan mail]. So I was very thick in the communication with my fans, knew what they wanted, knew what they liked. And I thought we was doin' fine."

McEntire's record sales, concert attendance and fan club membership throughout her most supersized decade indicated that she and her team were doing a whole lot better than fine. And little wonder; she was bringing those who mattered to her most along for the gravity-defying ride.

Of course, McEntire also wanted to expand into Hollywood. After shooting several mini-movie-style music videos on location — not to mention living the hardscrabble Southwestern ranch life — it wasn't that much of a stretch for her to make her first feature film, the horror spoof Tremors, in the desert, sans makeup. She did, however, have to learn how to handle a gun in order to be convincing in the scene where she unloads a stockpile of semiautomatics on one of the giant mutant worms that are terrorizing an isolated town.

Some of those spent shell casings are currently on display at the museum, along with a couple of movie stills. "When the subject of the exhibit has something like this sent over," Buck says with a chuckle, "you know that she really wants it in the exhibit, and you definitely do what you can to accommodate her."

McEntire also hooked the curators up with a buckskin getup she wore as Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley in a Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun, another occasion where marksmanship came in handy. From there, she'd gone on to anchor not one, but two prime-time sitcoms in the role of a strong-willed, smart-mouthed single mom who'd divorced her cheating ex. In Reba, which lasted seven seasons, she took a pregnant teenage daughter in stride but didn't take guff off anyone, and in Malibu Country, which ran for just one season but featured some great banter between her and co-star Lily Tomlin, she struggled gamely, and wryly, to restart her life and music career in California. Witness one of her choice lines: "If there's one thing the entertainment industry loves, it's a woman past her prime."

Far from feeling sold out by the singer they love — or, for that matter, striking the indignant posture of vinylphiles whose favorite under-the-radar indie rock band suddenly blows up — longtime McEntire fans like Billy Muth, Bonomo and Buzzeo have been gratified by McEntire's acting success, and the way it's broadened her audience. Muth made pilgrimages to attend a pair of her Broadway performances and a sitcom taping in L.A.

"I have been so happy to see Reba excel in other areas of entertainment," he says in an email. "She really can do anything. I think a big part of it is the fact that she is so down-to-earth."

"Down-to-earth" would also be a pretty fair descriptor of the quality McEntire looks for in the roles she takes on. "Just like in my songs," she says of her criteria, "things that people can relate to, that they know is honest, that's funny. Down-home humor. Things that people wanna say and haven't been able to say, you know, to [their] kids: 'Get your butt upstairs! You're not goin' out!' ... I like that no-nonsense type of stuff."

Naturally, her repertoire of high-quality songs is lighter on parenting themes, and one-liners, than her sitcoms. She's more often mined the visceral Southern storytelling tradition, or sung about navigating the emotional labyrinth of adult love, from women's perspectives, by the light of deeply felt desire or sense of duty. And as impossible as it may seem when country radio is cycling through hook-up-in-the-holler summer jams, McEntire not only hit home, but charted hits by addressing the anguish of adultery from nearly every imaginable angle, capturing the sense of defeat brought on by a disintegrated marriage and the wariness, exhilaration and empowerment that can come with starting over, and acknowledging the complex shame and grief of a woman who's contracted AIDS from a one-night stand.

As one of country music's standard-bearers for song interpretation, McEntire has never limited herself to autobiographical material. But as her star rose — and the cushiness of her lifestyle with it — she stayed in touch with her audience's less exalted realities, and her own not-so-distant roots. She was up front about the luxuries that made it possible for her to juggle motherhood and performing, nannies and a private plane among them. More importantly, she's cut songs like "Is There Life Out There." The deceptively sunny tune, and the music video and made-for-TV movie it spawned, depicted just how hard it is for a working woman who started a family right out of high school to have it all.

McEntire has said all along that trying to be an empathetic friend to her female fans guides even her onstage wardrobe choices: nothing too vampy or revealing, for fear that she'll alienate women by appearing to make a play for their partners' attention. That's why it was such a headline-grabbing deal the one time she sported a see-through sequined gown on the CMA Awards.

"Well, it was totally out of character for me!" she laughs heartily. "I'll tell you the funny story about it. I was in the dressing room and the lighting wasn't that good. I tried it on and it was low, but I thought, 'Well, that's just the lighting. I'm covered. I don't see anything.' So I walk down the hall to go sing, and Kris Kristofferson was walking down the hall. He said, 'Whoa!' I thought, 'Yes! Man, I look good!' "

Minutes later, she took the audience's gasps the same way. "And then when I saw the playbacks and everything, I thought, 'Crap! That's low!' Narvel almost had a heart attack, because when he saw it during the fitting, Sandi said, 'Oh, no, no, no. It's gonna be all filled in here. Because it was just netting."

"Well, she didn't fill it as much as we thought she was gonna fill it in. But I got a lot of attention off that dress."

There's a mannequin modeling that hot little number in the museum exhibit, and another dressed in the calf-high slouch boots, jeans and distressed leather tank top that McEntire wore during her most recent tour. The latter is definitely a look befitting a cowgirl who's arrived.

If you had to pick just one artifact that conveys her iconic standing in popular culture, you could do worse than the Reba Barbie doll, modeled on McEntire in all her "Fancy"-singing, country-pop arena queen glory. The mere mention of it, though, brings out her deep-down tomboy side.

"I never owned a doll," she says, "except for the one that [a friend] gave me in the first grade. And it was for Christmas. She drew my name. I still have it. It was in a little dome plastic case, and I hid my money in it when we would sell deer huntin' tickets [on the ranch] during deer huntin' season. I'd hide my money up in her dress.

"But no, I never owned a doll in my life."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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